Once, Twice, Thrice

If you’re a member of Team Coco like I am, you may know that Conan O’Brien launched a campaign to bring the word “thrice” back into our daily lexicon. While I have little occasion to use the word, I fully support this endeavor. There are probably tons of words that have fallen out of the mainstream that are due for a comeback.

And so I ask you – what words do you want to see return?

For me, I like the word “scram.” I always have and think it’s hilarious. And why don’t people get called “nimrod” anymore? Or hear people say “forthwith?” These are valuable words, people! If we, The Literary Ones, don’t bring them back, who will? The Save the Words website can only do so much!

So what say you? Which words do you want to rescue from obscurity before they permanently fall to the wayside?

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Who Would You Meet?

This weekend is SCBWI New York, which means lots of writers are going to be invading this fair city, even more than usual. One of these writers is my client, K.M. Walton, who will be attending the conference for the first time as a soon-to-be-published author, or, as she might put it, an Apocalypsie. Another reason I’m excited she’s coming into town is that I finally get to meet one of my non-New Yorker writers in person! Very cool.

So of course, this got me thinking – what living author would you most like to have a drink with? I say “living” because there are way too many dead ones to choose from and I’m trying to limit the possibilities. Since there are sure to be writers who are recovering alcoholics, we’ll use the term “drink” loosely and include coffee and tea.

I would love to sit down with Stephen King. I have to admit to being not exactly well-read in his fiction, but his nonfiction book, On Writing, is a must-read for any aspiring author. Plus I think Uncle Stevie and I would get along based on his very smart essays on pop culture and books that he wrote for Entertainment Weekly.

I would also say David Sedaris or Kelly Link because I think they’d be fun to hang out with. Or Jay McInerney, even though I’d be too intimidated to speak to him. I might end up speaking only in second person.

What say you? Remember, living authors only.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Pitches and Strikes

If you don’t read agent Jennifer Laughran’s blog, 1) why not?! and 2) you are currently missing out on some great advice if you are planning to attend a conference. While I have no overall conference-attending advice, I thought I’d talk about pitching in person because this past Saturday I participated in the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam, and it was my first experience with writers pitching to me. Basically, every writer got three minutes to pitch their project to an agent, and once those three minutes were up, a bell rang and then they were sent to be killed. OK, not really. They just had to move on to another agent. In the two-hour, non-stop pitch sessions, the writers I met ranged from all-business to nervous wreck to deer-in-headlights. It made me wonder, what must they be like on job interviews?

There were, of course, a few gems who, even if I didn’t always request their manuscripts, maintained the ideal level of professionalism while still being natural and personable. In case you’re attending another conference that requires pitching to an agent, here are some of the extreme cases I encountered to help you remain the one thing agents want you to be: yourself.

The Overachiever: This writer is ALL business. They are Tracy Flick-meets-Hermione Granger. What’s that? You want to exchange a handshake and a hello? No such luck. Not even a smile. This writer wants to sell, sell, sell. To them, a handshake wastes precious “getting out my binder and carefully typed notes” time and a hello is just another word for “I will now read you my entire query letter, including bio, in under three minutes.” An agent will respond positively to this only if the book sounds like something he or she wants to read. But, overall, it’s daunting and a little scary.

The Walking Nerve Ending: Writers, agents are people too. More importantly, we’re usually the socially awkward bookish people. No need to fear us! Besides, when your voice shakes, we can’t hear what your project is about. All we want to do is hug you instead. Ssh… we’re all just people, and agents need you as much as you need them. If one of us doesn’t particularly want what you’ve written, well then on to the next one! It’ll be OK.

The BFF: This is the opposite of The Overachiever. They might have come prepared with a binder, but you’d never know it because they are just so excited to meet you and are such a fan of [something agent’s done]. This writer might use the phrase “I feel like I know you!” and you wonder for a moment if they will give you a hug or invite you out for a drink after, neither of which are appropriate. It is always a good idea to be approachable and pleasant, especially if you follow an agent on Twitter, read their blog, or have met them before. But you do not want to appear so familiar that you lose your sense of professional boundaries.

The Lost Puppy: Another label for deer-in-headlights. This writer is adorably nervous, but not in a debilitating way like the The Walking Nerve Ending. Instead, this writer stammers and stares until, finally, they’re able to get out their one-sentence pitch just under three minutes. They just need a little love and encouragement, and maybe a gentle shove to keep moving, lest they get hit by a car (or, in this case, a bell signifying their time is up).

The Fast Talker: As someone who fears public speaking more than death, I can relate to The Fast Talker. I know what it’s like to think oh god if I just get through this as quickly as possible it’ll all be over and I’ll never have to speak again! It’s a form of anxiety that I have trouble calling others out on, in case I am labeled a hypocrite. However, I’ll offer some tips on what got me through the few times I wasn’t able to feign illness to get out of speaking (which, yes, I’ve done). 1) Know what you’re talking about. In this case, it’s easy because what you’re talking about is your book. If you can speak confidently and with authority on something, there’s no reason to be nervous. 2) Before it’s your turn to speak, take a break and count to three. It’s pretty textbook, I know, but it tends to work.

The Mumbles McMumbleson: This is the writer who lacks confidence and just wants to disappear. They know finding an agent is important, so they have to do this, but by god, do they really need to do this in person? The answer of course is no. No one is forcing writers to attend conferences and meet agents in person. But conferences are important for writers and they chose to be there, so speak up and speak clearly!

Like I said, there were definitely some gems and I’m very excited to read the manuscripts I requested. The Pitch Slam was intense, but fun, which is how many of the writers involved saw it too. See, agents are just like you! No need to fear. When all is said and done, just be yourself. We only want you for your books anyway…

You Are Not Original (and that’s OK)

We want to believe we are unique little snowflakes. As writers, we create, and we want to believe that what we create is the most original concept that readers will ever see. Nine times out of ten, this just won’t happen. We are not snowflakes. We are barely a box of multi-colored pencils. And for writers, that’s just fine. In most fiction, genre fiction especially, the same premises get repeated. It’s not plagiarism; it’s just normal. In fact, it’s how some sub-genres form in the first place. That said, most of these books use this basic, universal premise as simply a guide. How the writer chooses to enrich that structure is what separates good writing from the forgettable, regrettable wannabes.

I don’t know what it is about January so far, but it seems as if everyone’s New Year’s resolution was to finish their novel and start querying agents right away. While I appreciate the motivation, this is more damaging than good. To put it another way, the number of queries I’m getting per day this month are almost double that of what I was getting in December. The number of manuscripts I’m requesting, however, has more than halved. This is in part because of what I’m talking about above. People seem to be so quick to get out their manuscripts that they’ve forgotten to enrich their basic plot to make it stand out.

Before you send out your query to agents, make sure that when you sum up your book in those few, precious sentences, there is more to it than what’s implied.

Paranormal Romance & Non-romance: I recently tweeted, “In a severely crowded paranormal market, your plot needs to be more complex than ‘MC becomes/is/loves a non-human & must deal.'” I can’t stress this enough, especially since I get more queries for paranormal than any other genre. Agents and editors only want “the next Twilight” in terms of wanting another massively successful series that will make boatloads of cash for everyone involved. This does not mean we’re asking for “girl falls in love with a vampire and is conflicted about it.” It’s been done to death (undeath?)! It’s also not a twist if the person who falls in love with the non-human is a boy, nor does the female character become “strong” simply by being a vamp, wolf, zombie, etc. Sorry.

Literary fiction: People in the suburbs are not what they appear to be. Marriages that are seemingly perfect are actually rooted in resentment and possible adultery. Professor at a liberal arts college has an affair with a student. People living in Brooklyn do things that are seemingly more meaningful than what you’re doing (yep, looking at you, 90% of literary fiction authors!). Sure, these premises continue to work in literary fiction (hey, I still buy them), but unless your last name is, in fact, Franzen, you will need to give your mournful suburbanites a little more depth.

Mystery/Horror: While these two genres are not the same thing, I’ve been getting a lot of cross-genre queries lately that read like tag lines from teen scary movies from the ’90s. A group of people win a trip to a haunted house. A person who believes in ghosts begins seeing them for real. A killer runs rampant in a small town and is more often than not, the main character’s boyfriend/best friend/long-lost relative. Usually all of these premises are offered with a wink. They’ll provide a character who speaks for the audience by his or her cynicism and references to classic movies. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. It’s fun to write and it’s fun for the reader. But try not to rely solely on formula here. It’s harder to resist the temptation to do so in these genres, so make sure to add a little twist here and there that strays from the expected. What’s even more difficult is that in these particular genres, the “unexpected” is now what’s expected. (Thanks a lot, Hitchcock!)

Contemporary YA:Your main character’s parents are dead or otherwise absent, so he or she grows up too fast by either a) being overly responsible, mature, and “good” or b) drinks and parties, but is still wiser & wittier beyond his or her years. Then they meet or come across a catalyst for their path to self-actualization. Congratulations, you have a character portrait! But, this is not an engaging story by itself.

Science fiction: A boy (usually a boy) who is an orphan (usually an orphan) must defend his planet/galaxy/race/family because he is The One. A quest is involved. He also has some personal connection to the Force of Evil. This is called Every Sci-fi and Fantasy Novel You’ve Ever Read or Movie You’ve Ever Seen. Luke, Harry, Ender, Frodo, Jesus, Perseus – all of our heroes have the same story when it’s boiled down to one sentence. Think of how these stories stand out from each other before starting your next project. (To my fellow nerds, please refrain from yelling at me about why I’m wrong to compare Frodo to Perseus.)

Dystopian: The world as we know it has been destroyed by a virus! The world as we know it has been destroyed by climate change! The world as we know it has been destroyed by economic turmoil! The novel has been destroyed by Find & Replace! Writers, no matter how the world as we know it ends and no matter what the world you’re writing about is like, make what happens in that world worth caring about. Romance? Adventure? Mystery subplot completely unrelated to how the world has changed? All examples of how to bring your dystopian (another insanely crowded market) to the next level.

I could go on to give the basic formula for “chick lit,” but I’ll save you all some time and say that no one should use that phrase anymore and please don’t write it anyway. Thanks 🙂

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Parental Units in Fiction

Question of the day –

Assuming you’ve encountered a book where the main character’s parents actually remained alive, whose parents would you most like to have had growing up?

Note: aunts and uncles raising the main character as their own do not count.

I want to say the Weasleys, but I think I’d grow impatient with Molly and her overbearing ways. I’d also want Atticus Finch as my dad, but again… I’m without a mother. What gives, fiction? Why are your moms unacceptable to me? Can I borrow Joyce Summers even though she’s not literary? Mother Goose, perhaps? Sigh.

What say you, friends?

Crossing Over with YA

I often get queries that state plainly, “I’m writing to you because I know you enjoy crossover YA and I think my story is perfect for you.” Yes, it is true I prefer my YA to be more enjoyed by more than just teens, but I noticed that many of the eager writers are missing the point when submitting their crossover manuscripts. Like with most things, there is no “one ultimate rule” when defining what makes crossover YA. There are, however, many traps writers set for themselves when trying to write in this style. As a fan of the genre when it’s done right, I’m hoping to debunk the spiral of lies that writers often fall into so that the wide definition of Crossover becomes a little more narrow.

Crossover YA Means Older Teen/Younger Adult Characters:
Having a college-aged main character or a senior in high school who find him-or-herself in “adult situations” can mean that older readers will latch onto your story. Though, for the most part, having an older character, in my opinion, can do your YA a disservice. By focusing too much on having the age of the characters match that of your intended audience, you not only risk alienating a wider audience, but you could also lose focus on the story you want to tell vs. the story you think you should tell. Writing what you want should always take precedent. Worry about where characters’ ages fall later.(This is also true in deciding on Middle Grade vs. Young Adult.)

But Adults Won’t Read Books With Narrators/MCs Under 14:
Tell that to J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Orson Scott Card – to name a few. While J.K. is the only one on that list to have a “true YA premise,” the others have proven that just because a character’s voice hasn’t yet changed doesn’t mean it can’t still resonate with the big kids.

OK, but back to this “true YA premise” – Won’t that alienate adult readers?
Fair point. I’ll return to the Harry Potter example from above. Tell the average grown-up that you’re reading a book about eleven-year-old wizards who attend a magic school and regularly encounter giants, unicorns, and dragons, and they will probably say, “That’s nice, Junior; now go run along and play.” Tell the same person you’re reading a book about three friends who work together to battle a force of evil responsible for the deaths of the main character’s parents, and they might be more inclined to take you seriously. Adjust the general plot for the more fantasy-minded reader, and you have a book they won’t want to put down, regardless of age. In other words, a great story is a great story. What a reader chooses to take from isn’t always what the author writes intentionally.

My Main Characters Takes a Bunch of Illegal Drugs, Has Sex With Four Different People, and then Murders Someone Within the 1st Thirty Pages. Not exactly the stuff YA is made of.
How old is this drug-taking nympho murderer? Who was murdered and why? Does another teen have to solve the case? Is there a lengthy and potentially boring-for-teens trial? Will the main character learn something about him-or-herself by the end?

The answers to these questions will help you decide which age group this falls under, but never assume that something can’t be YA just because of content. There are always contributing factors that make it go one way or another.

A Book Without an Target Reader in Mind Won’t Sell
According to my query pile, writers seem very concerned about which section of a bookstore their work will be displayed. I completely understand why writers of crossover YA would be concerned about this. That said, it should in no way effect how you approach writing your novel. Sometimes you will find that given then story you created, the only logical age your characters can be is around nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one. Where they end up in a bookstore, in these cases, is dependent on the nature of the writing and the plot.

So that means I should, like, make my characters talk all YA, even though the plot is epic and totally more appealing and appropriate for people, like, way older?
No. Your characters need to make sense given the situations they are in and the tone you are trying to master. If a teenager is in an adult situation that can only be an adult situation, write their character accordingly.

Fine. But what if my freshman-in-college protagonist and her senior-in-college boyfriend go on a road trip in search of the mother she thought she lost in Katrina, but when they arrive in New Orleans, the only thing they find is… themselves.
Other than having an overly sentimental cliche on your hands, I’d say you have a perfect example of “either/or.” In this case, use your instincts. I’ve given advice to make a character younger or older based on the plot and writing style. Likewise, I’ve had writers tweak their plot to better suit a younger audience. These minor changes are inevitable when you have this type of novel. But, for the most part, the minor changes are never deal-breakers.

So, what you’re saying is I should just write my story and stop freaking out that it’s not YA enough or too YA?
Right. Be mindful of a potential audience, keep your story in keeping with the characters, and let the characters adapt to the plot in a way their ages and life experiences would realistically allow. But don’t get wrapped up in who’s going to read it. Just focus on the story you want to tell.

This, of course, is all easier said than done. The best way to avoid the spiral is to remember to trust your reader while writing, and then trust your agent and editor while trying to publish. Mostly though – trust yourself as a writer to get across what you want to say to the people you want to say it without even trying 🙂

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

When someone asks you what you do, what do you say? Writer? Author? Artist? Do you mutter a general job description and immediately follow it up with … but, ya know, I’m just doing this for now!?

There’s always a little bit of a debate in the yet-to-be-published community on whether they are “writers” or “authors.” I know industry people who think they are one in the same, that the words are interchangeable. I am not one of these people. To me, a writer is a person who is serious about his or her craft and has the drive, knowledge, and skill to someday get published. An author is someone who has been published.

Now, there was some news this week about a certain Jersey Shore cast member and her work of fiction that looks astonishingly like her real life. Folks, I hate to say this, but Snooki is an author. I know. I’ll give you a minute.

OK, now that we’ve calmed down, a slight digression: When I was little, I wore Barbie lip gloss and ate Flinstones vitamins. The packagers stuck a familiar face on an otherwise commonplace product so that they could better compete within specific markets. Enter Snooki’s novel.

In the same way that Hanna-Barbera Productions did not manufacture pharmaceuticals in between creating beloved cartoon characters, Snooki having a book with her name on the cover does not make her a writer. (This is also in part because her book was, presumably, largely ghostwritten.) That’s not to say other celebrities who have written books aren’t writers. It’s just that Snooki and her ilk (be it Kardashian or Hilton) are the brand of celebrities that are, well, brands. The line is a fine one, but it’s there. President Obama, for example, is a writer. For one, he actually penned his words. And two, he was not a celebrity or even a politician of much note when his memoir was published. And in the manner of being fair and balanced, I’ll admit that Bill O’Reilly is also a writer. I repeat, it’s a fine line, but if you look closely enough, the differences between real writers and “people who have book deals” are clear.

So, back to you.

If not all writers are authors and not all authors are writers, where does that leave you? I bring this question up because I think it’s something fun to think about. There is no right answer. It’s only slightly bothersome to me when a writer queries me claiming to be a “published author” when they mean “I know how  to click a button that will bind my manuscript for me,” which is why I make my own distinctions between writers and authors. But writers who are serious about what they do deserve more than just being called “people who write,” so they have every right to claim that label proudly for themselves. But you tell me – what do you call yourselves? Or do you just say “I’m awesome” and leave it at that?

Finally, as you ponder what to call yourselves this weekend, I leave you with this week’s Winner of  the Internet, James Van Der Beek and his Vandermemes. Personally, I’d like to thank Mr. Van Der Beek for finally justifying my preference of Dawson over Pacey. It  took over a decade, and I was getting tired of defending my choices (you’d be surprised how often it would come up over the years), but I feel that my love of the Van Der Beek and my indifference to Joshua Jackson has been vindicated. Well done, sir.